Short Track Heros Of Indy

SPEEDWAY, IN: When the inaugural IRL season was launched in 1996, one of it?s primary stated goals was to create a path for American short track heroes which would lead to the Speedway. It was hoped that rigid cost containment, and other ?racer-friendly? rules, would once again help make the Indy 500 an attainable goal….and a viable alternative to NASCAR as well. Maybe, with luck, Jeff Gordon would be the only guy remembered by open wheel aficionados as the ?one who got away?.

As expected, May, 1996 was a bit of a thrash but, when the field formed up for the start, the Short Track Heroes were present and accounted for. The previous year, under the CART umbrella, the field contained only one dirt guy; the late Stan Fox. Now, with the IRL concept in gear, the short tracks of America had six representatives: Davey Hamilton, Mark Dismore, Joe Gosek, Tony Stewart, Johnny Parsons and Paul Durant. A door and clearly been opened…

In 1997, the trend seemed even stronger. Without including Robby Gordon and Jeff Ward…since they weren’t?t really considered 4 wheel oval track racers, seven short track guys took the green flag on race day: Stewart, Hamilton, Billy Boat, Steve Kinser (!), Tyce Carlson, Durant and Dismore. This was more like it; Saturday night racin? at the Brickyard!

1998 saw the roster of short track heroes swell to nine: Hamilton, Andy Michner, J.J. Yeley, Jimmy Kite, Jack Hewitt (!), Boat, Dismore, Donny Beechler, and Stewart. Finally; it seemed that we had an environment where talent could do a driver nearly as much good as funding at the Speedway. The IRL Mission was being fulfilled….

By 1999, the Hero count was seven: Boat, Stewart, Hamilton, Carlson, Dismore, Kite, and Beechler.

As the Speedway entered a new century, things never looked brighter for the short trackers at Indy. The 2000 lineup….like 1998….boasted nine brave souls: Dismore, Beechler, Boat, Jason Leffler, Hamilton, Andy Hillenberg, Al Unser Jr., Kite, and…Sarah Fisher(!). Could it get any better?

Even as CART teams were beginning to break ranks and head for the Speedway, eight of our heroes lined up on Race Day, 2001:
Stewart, Boat, Dismore, Cory Witherill, Hamilton, Beechler, Unser Jr. and Fisher.

In 2002, Al Jr. had the short tracker’s best result, scoring a twelfth place finish. Also in the field were Boat, Sarah, Treadway and Dismore.

The following year, the class was down to four, again lead by Unser Jr. Jimmy Kite was joined by the IRL’s most popular driver, Sarah Fisher and Billy Boat. Unser Jr’s ninth place finish was tops for the group.

2004 saw veterans Al Jr. and Fisher joined by rookies Ed Carpenter and P.J. Jones, son of the legendary Parnelli. And again, Al Jr. came home 17th, best finish of the bunch.

The roster dropped to an all time low in 2005, as only Carpenter and Kite managed to crack the lineup. Slim pickings, indeed, as the original IRL concept began to fade…

The group of Short Track Heroes was back to four in 2006, as a pair of P.J.’s (Jones and rookie Chesson) were joined by Al Unser Jr. and Ed Carpenter. Carpenter’s finish of 11th was tops.

Last year, veteran Davy Hamilton made a remarkable comeback from career-threatening injuries to record a ninth place finish, leading a group of short track heroes that included Ed Carpenter, Sarah Fisher and Al Unser Jr. and returning veteran John Andretti, whose NASCAR career had stalled.

And now, to the present. The field is full, and another piece of history is about to be written. But, try as I might, I can find only four heroes of the American short tracks on the grid: Ed Carpenter, Davey Hamilton, John Andretti and Sarah Fisher. As always, our group of heroes is strong on talent, but somewhat short in numbers.

This trend away from the participation of the Short Track Heroes in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is undeniable, and I for one find it hard not to be somewhat disappointed. It seems that the IRL originally did everything possible to prepare a level playing field. Hopefully, the talent pool that exists
on the short tracks of America will continue to find it?s way to the Speedway each May.

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